The Senate Filibuster Isn't Going Anywhere

No matter how you change the rules you still need legislators who care about the nation’s problems.

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With the Senate limping out of town last week for a six week recess, unable to deal with major pieces of legislation before it adjourned including small business tax relief, the defense authorization bill, and the extension of middle class tax cuts, there has been renewed attention about whether the rules of the Senate should be changed to make it harder for the minority to block consideration of legislation and appointments.

The Senate Rules Committee has held a series of six hearings over the past few months with the most recent last Wednesday on the Senate filibuster rules and whether they should be revised. Chairman Chuck Schumer said the point of the hearings was to consider ways that delay of Senate business can be reduced and debate encouraged.

[See which industries contribute to Schumer.]

There is no doubt that Senate Republicans have made obstruction a high art in this Congress and the number of filibusters, or threatened filibusters, is greater than ever, often slowing Senate action to a crawl or causing deadlock. A number of legislative solutions and rules changes to address the problem have been proposed this year.

Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa has proposed legislation that would make it easier to break a filibuster and gradually reduce the number of votes needed from 60 to a simple majority over a period of weeks if the Senate could not move forward on consideration of a particular piece of legislation.

[See where Harkin gets his campaign money.]

Other proposals include requiring only a majority vote to break a filibuster or filibuster threat and eliminating the “secret holds” that senators can put on appointments and legislation without identifying who they are or the cause of their opposition.

New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg has proposed the “Mr. Smith Bill.” Right now minority members who want to block the consideration of legislation or appointments don’t actually have to stand on the floor and filibuster--they just have to threaten a filibuster. [See who supports Lautenberg.]

Lautenberg’s bill would require any senator wanting to filibuster to actually show up on the floor and debate—à la Mr. Smith, the character played by Jimmy Stewart in the famous 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, about corruption in the U.S. Senate and one honest senator who stood up to the powerbrokers.

“If a senator wants to delay our work in the Senate, then that senator must show up on the floor and debate,” stated Lautenberg when he introduced the bill last spring. “If any of my colleagues feel strongly enough about a bill or nomination to stop all work in the Senate, they should have no problem standing on the Senate floor to explain their opposition to the American public.”

Sounds like common sense doesn’t it?

Under Lautenberg’s proposal, if a senator conducting a filibuster were to stop talking or leave the floor, the majority leader could move for an immediate vote.

Another more detailed proposal for dealing with Senate gridlock has been introduced by Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado. Udall and his staff designed the legislation with the help of American Enterprise Institute scholar and congressional expert Norman Ornstein, who testified before the Rules Committee on it last week.

Among the changes Udall and Ornstein propose:

  • Instead of requiring 60 votes of the entire Senate to invoke cloture, Udall’s bill would require three fifths of the members present and voting on the floor. In other words, members would have to actually show up to block floor action, not threaten it over the telephone from hundreds of miles away.
  • Make it easier for the minority to offer germane amendments to legislation and harder for the majority leader to block them by requiring only a simple majority vote to consider them.
  • Instead of allowing three or four filibusters on the same issue at different stages of the legislative process, Udall’s bill would allow only one filibuster per bill--“one bite at the apple” as Ornstein described it to the committee.
  • The Udall bill would streamline the process and eliminate a lot of the delays bogging down the Senate but would still respect the rights of the minority.

    It seems like a commonsense approach, but even so, Ornstein said he doesn’t see much incentive for the current minority to consider changes to Senate rules.

    Any Senate rules changes would require 67 votes--even more than the number required to break a filibuster.

    Ornstein said he firmly believes that the GOP minority has misused the Senate rules and the Udall approach is reasonable and balanced and would still protect the minority’s rights while eliminating a lot of unnecessary delay.

    Udall said he realizes there is no chance the Senate will consider his changes when it returns after the November election for a lame duck session, but said, “My plan is to get these ideas circulating, continue the conversations, and work on this next year. The goal of these changes is to work better, more efficiently, and have more debate.”

    “The culture is careening out of control” Ornstein warned, suggesting that next year the Senate will probably have more members who resemble South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint in ideology and temperament and see nothing wrong with asserting their views over the entire body and grinding everything to a halt.

    [See who supports DeMint.]

    There will also probably be fewer moderates, especially GOP moderates, who are willing to work across the aisle and get things done. So no matter how you try to change the rules you still need legislators who care more about solving the nation’s problems and working together than their own political advantage.

    Where is Mr. Smith when you need him?

    • Check out our editorial cartoons on the GOP.
    • Follow the money in Congress.
    • Read more coverage of the political stories of the year.